Benny Lynch: the world boxing champion who fought in a work camp

lynch

Lynch’s grave, image copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Benny Lynch was arguably the greatest boxer that Scotland has ever produced. Born in the Gorbals in 1913, he became world flyweight champion in 1936 (or 1935, depending on which world championship we are talking about) and was a popular Glasgow hero. The popular actor Norman Wisdom, himself a handy amateur flyweight boxer, was said to be desperate to play him.

Now a campaign for a statue in his honour has received support from the actor Robert Carlyle among others. I happen to think a statue would be highly fitting. But my interest in Lynch was sparked less by his sporting prowess than by the fact that he fought an exhibition match in front of an audience of staff and trainees at a government work camp.

This information comes from Mr Ian MacArthur, who contacted the Dunoon Observer after reading an interview about my book on work camps. Mr MacArthur’s grandfather kept a local temperance hotel, and in 1934 his father became woodwork and metalwork instructor at Ardentinny Instructional Centre. Mr MacArthur remembered his father saying that the camp manager had arranged for Benny Lynch to visit the camp, where he fought an exhibition match with the physical training instructor.

Ardentinny was one of 24 ICs in 1934, run by the Ministry of Labour to ‘harden’ young unemployed men through a combination of hard work, a solid diet, and basic medical care. By 1934, the camps also provided some basic skills training, literacy classes, and entertainment, including films and sports, of which football and boxing were far the most popular (along with rugby in Wales). If you look closely at the postcard below, you can see men swimming in the Clyde.

Ardentinny postcard

These activities were, of course, highly compatible with the camps’ aim of ‘reconditioning’ male bodies. Presumably, they also went some way to alleviate the tedium of camp existence, particularly if a local celebrity like Lynch was involved.

 

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A metalwork instructor in a 1930s British work camp

The last remaining hut from Glenfinart Instructional Centre, sadly demolished in 2011

The last remaining hut from Glenfinart Instructional Centre, sadly demolished in 2011

Back in November, the Dunoon Observer reported on my research into British work camps, focusing mainly on the Glenfinart Instructional Centre in Ardentinny. The Ministry of Labour opened the Centre in 1934 as a summer camp where young unemployed men were ‘hardened’ through a programme of heavy manual labour, supported by health care and a solid diet. Most of the work involved preparing rough scrubland and pasture for planting, and the area is now largely covered by a very attractive forest.

Subsequently, a local reader contacted the paper. Mr Ian MacArthur’s grandfather was manager of the Ardentinny Temperance Hotel during the period when the Centre was open; and his father, John MacArthur, found work in the Centre as an instructor.

In the Dunoon Observer for 12 December 2014, Mr MacArthur described the background to his father’s appointment as follows: “He worked with a coke-raising forge, the fumes of which eventually poisoned him after a couple of years and hospitalised him”. After a period away from the west coast, John MacArthur applied for the post at the Centre.

The Ministry of Labour had approved this position in February 1934, but decided as an economy measure to merge the roles of woodwork instructor and metalwork instructor into one role. In May 1934 the Ministry listed the wages and salaries of its staff at the camp; the woodwork instructor was being paid 55 shillings weekly, significantly above what local farmworkers would have received at the time and slightly more than skilled engineers were receiving.

Mr MaccArthur also remembered his father saying that the IC manager had arranged for the well-known boxer Benny Lynch to visit the camp, where he fought an exhibition match with the physical training instructor. He doesn’t say who won this encounter, but Lynch was the world flyweight champion, and a popular Glasgow hero. He was then at his peak and his visit to the camp must have been sensational for staff and trainees alike. I’ve also been told that the heavyweight Tommy Farr (“the Tonypandy Terror”) also visited and fought in one of the Welsh camps.

Such memories are, of course, second hand, and we need to check them against other sources. My judgement is that Mr MacArthur’s account broadly confirm two features of the Ministry of Labour’s IC system.

First, the camps provided a fairly limited programme of skills development. As well as woodwork and metalwork, they usually offered some basic literacy and geography, but their major focus was on a regime of heavy manual labour, with the aim of building strength and stamina.

Second, those who ran the camps organised a range of recreational activities for the trainees, from cinema to but the ideal masculine body was central to many of these activities. Given that Benny Lynch symbolised the idealised virile physique, it is sad but ironic to report that his career ended in alcoholism.

Drinking and work camps

I’ve just given a seminar on British work camps between the wars, and one thing that got the audience going was a brief mention of unemployed inmates going to the pub. I was using this as an example of a more general feature of the Ministry of Labour’s unemployed camps – namely, that although they were ‘bounded communities,’ they were not completely closed.

This discussion reminded me of a curious episode that I came across in the Dunoon Herald for 2 November 1934. By then, Dunoon was close to two Ministry of Labour camps, a permanent camp at Glenbranter and a summer camp at Ardentinny, each housing 200 men.

The Ardentinny men were in the habit of taking the bus to Dunoon for an evening out, which attracted the attention of a local entrepreneur. The owner of the Ardentinny Temperance Hotel, who also ran a farm, applied to the licencing court for permission to sell alcohol. The court heard from his neighbours, who claimed that extra police would be needed to deal with badly behaved drunks from Greenock.

Ardentinny Hotel in the 30s, image from http://ardentinny.org/

Ardentinny Hotel in the 30s, image from http://ardentinny.org/

The manager of Ardentinny Instructional Centre, a Mr Greeenwood, also opposed the application. From the Ministry of Labour’s perspective, Greenwood wanted things to stay as they were:

The chief attraction, so far as their scheme was concerned, was that there was no hotel there. If there were, it would be a temptation to the lads and might spoil their chances of getting employment. As it was the lads were well treated by the residents and there had been no complaints of any kind.

The court refused the licence, and the men continued to do their drinking in Dunoon.

Masculinity and domesticity: who did the housework in work camps?

Most work camps in Britain, as elsewhere, were run by men for men. There were exceptions, which I’ve written about, but in the main these were masculine institutions where male bodies undertook heavy manual labour. And much thought was given to feeding and nurturing those male bodies.

Cleanliness was certainly a virtue. Most camps had baths and many had showers, at a time when many working class and some middle class families made do with a tub in front of the fire. And indoor spaces had to be ket clean and tidy, usually by the inmates.

Bodies were actively cared for. Men were routinely inspected for lice, and subjected tomedical inspection. In the Ministry of Labour camps in the 1930s, they were even given free dental and eye treatment – something the men would otherwise have paid for, if they could afford it. And they were weighed, with a view to achieving a desirably stronger and heavier body.

For there was food. Diet was a big deal, for the organisers and the inmates. The authorities usually took care to nourish working bodies with substantial servings of protein and carbohydrate, washed down with mugs of tea. Yet complaints about food – lack of variety, or poor quality – were by far the greatest cause of protests within the camps.

Again, the inmates did the cooking, usually supervised by specialist staff who were also male. Interestingly, the Ministry of Labour’s camps during the 1930s were equipped with shiny metal cookers and dishwashers, set up to cater to the 200 trainees and forty staff. So in these camps at least, male domestic labour was also technologically mediated labour.

That this was of wider interest in interwar Britain is clear. The Ministry of Labour encouraged  public visits (except for supporters of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement). In 1936, for example, the Ministry invited the public to an evening of variety in its Instructional Centre at Ardentinny, in the west of Scotland. According to the Dunoon Herald, ‘Great admiration was shown by the ladies especially in the huge kitchens and their equipment for feeding nearly two hundred and forty persons’.

Very few camps brought men and women together. Some did, including the voluntary work camps organised by the International Voluntary Service for Peace, whose endeavours included the conversion of stables into a youth hostel in Whitby, and a massive swimming lido at Brynmawr in South Wales. The Quaker-led IVSP expected male volunteers to work with ‘pick and shovel’, while the ‘sisters’ were expected to cook, clean and sew. IVSP did not place women on a formally equal footing until well after WW2.

Work camps were more or less bounded communities, whose central role was to rebuild enfeebled male bodies through hard work and nurture. Where they were solely male in membership, men did the domestic work, usually on a rota basis, just as they might have done in the armed forces. Where they were mixed, which was extremely rare, men undertook ‘hard work’, and women did domestic labour.